Most law firms have one or more managing partners that fulfills a number of administrative duties at a shop. Some managing partners just run a single office at a firm, and other managing partners have authority over a larger region in which the law firm operates. Certain law firms have managing partners at the top of the firm’s hierarchy who have jurisdiction over an entire firm and all of the offices run by a shop. Most people only interact with the managing partner for the office in which they work, and some of these managing partners have extensive power. However, sometimes managing partners have very little authority, and a variety of factors often determine the level of authority and power that is wielded by a given managing partner.
Perhaps the most powerful office managing partner I ever worked with was the office managing partner at a Biglaw shop toward the beginning of my career. We had over a hundred people in our office, and our office was a large revenue generator for the firm and was otherwise very important to the law firm as a whole. As a result, this managing partner had a lot of leeway from higher-up partners at the firm to manage the affairs at that office as the managing partner saw fit. I believe this partner was also a regional managing partner, so this managing partner had a lot of authority around the office and the firm.
The authority exercised by this managing partner yielded numerous benefits to people around the office. Since the partner had so much clout around the firm, I got the sense that he was able to guarantee generous bonuses to associates and staff in our office and approve more generous budgets for office operations than other parts of the firm might have received. Moreover, the partner was also able to convince many people at the firm to take on somewhat controversial matters, which kept people in our office occupied with work.
The managing partner’s power was so great that it actually got in the way of making improvements around the office. If people wanted to move offices within the office, they needed to get the approval of this powerful managing partner. Since this was not much of a priority, it sometimes took months for such requests to be approved even though there was no opposition to the move. Moreover, some of the problems faced by our office and the firm at large might not have occurred if other people had more of a voice in running the certain operations. The partner arguably made some mistakes when it came to prospective clients, real estate, personnel, and other matters, and it seemed that people were not really in a position to voice opposition to any ideas.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are some managing partners that are figureheads only. Most legal professionals know that the people who have the most clout in a firm are usually the rainmakers who originate the most business. If these people left a firm, the shop would be in serious trouble, but if partners who do not have much work leave a law firm, the impact might not be so significant. However, some rainmakers might not want to deal with the day-to-day administrative tasks of running a law firm like managing personnel, approving expenses, and other matters.
As a result, partners who have the most influence might approve another lawyer being the managing partner in an office. But people usually know who actually controls an office and who ultimately makes the decisions if there is a disagreement in operations of a shop. During my career, I worked at a law firm at which the office managing partner was likely given his job as a consolation rather than recognition for the influence that this partner had around the office. The managing partner did not even have the biggest office at the shop, which was a clear sign of who was actually in charge of the firm. However, the managing partner seemed to be content with the arrangement since he held the managing partner title for years and the firm operated successfully for a long time.
In sum, no two office managing partners are alike, and people should not assume that an office managing partner has the same level of authority as other managing partners they may have worked with at various times in their careers. Although some influential lawyers can become managing partners and use the title to consolidate their power, some managing partners are figureheads only who have little real influence over the happenings at a law firm.
Jordan Rothman is a partner of The Rothman Law Firm, a full-service New York and New Jersey law firm. He is also the founder of Student Debt Diaries, a website discussing how he paid off his student loans. You can reach Jordan through email at firstname.lastname@example.org.